Tuesday, April 14, 2020

An idle tale

An aspect of the Easter story which I didn't touch on in my brief sermon on Sunday is the initial reaction of Jesus' followers to the news of the resurrection.  We are continuing a long-running series in Luke's Gospel, so picked up the story from Luke 24:1-12.  The women go to the tomb; the stone is moved and the body missing; two angels appear who proclaim the resurrection of Christ.  And then, naturally, they go tell the male disciples.

Who don't believe a word of it.

The way Luke tells the story, they weren't violently opposed to the idea of Jesus being raised; they didn't feel the need to argue about why it was impossible.  They didn't engage with the message at all.  It seemed like nothing more than an idle tale.  A fantasy.

Partly I guess we're seeing the reaction of a misogynistic culture.  As many preachers will no doubt have pointed out at the weekend, the testimony of a woman was automatically suspect in the ancient world, and legally inadmissible.  And of course such attitudes persist.  But I don't think that's the heart of it.

The disciples of Jesus find it easy to dismiss rumours of his resurrection because they know that this sort of thing does not happen.  Their indifference to the report of the women is motivated by the exact same force which lies behind much contemporary rejection of the same report: it doesn't happen that way.  People die and stay dead.  That's just the way it is.

I find this reaction encouraging in some ways.  The first Christians weren't naive; they didn't belong to a time where resurrections were believable.  Bear in mind that according to the Gospel writers, these disciples had witnessed Jesus raising people from death to life; they had also heard his promise that he himself would rise on the third day.  But this was not enough to overcome the basic human intuition, backed up by overwhelming experience, that death is a one-way trip.  The only thing that did overcome it was an encounter with the risen Jesus himself.  To me this makes their testimony more believable.  They were sceptics too, and had to be won over.

I suspect that in some ways it was harder for them than it is for us.  We've had centuries to become accustomed to the idea of Christ rising, even if we still regard it as an idle tale.  As N.T. Wright tirelessly points out, the first disciples knew what resurrection was; it was something which would occur at the end, when everyone would rise to judgement.  This resurrection, of a singular person, was not it.  It ran contrary to everything they knew about the world, just as, for different reasons, it runs contrary to what we know about the world.

But is it an idle tale, though?  Was the world turned upside down, were millions of lives changed, by an idle tale?  Was it a fantasy which brought this all about?

Which story, in the end, is more unbelievable?

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